What's Driving J.D. Vance?Roundup
tags: conservatism, psychohistory, Political theory, J.D. Vance
Gabriel Winant is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of The Next Shift: The Fall of Manufacturing and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America.
WHAT MORE DOES J. D. VANCE WANT? With the Yale degree and the success of Hillbilly Elegy, he got status: glitzy friends, a beautiful and accomplished wife, widespread demand for his appearance and endorsement. More than status, he won celebrity, becoming a totem of the forgotten and abandoned people in whose likenesses — refashioned into exploitative grotesques — he trafficked. He got money, going to work in the fascist wing of Silicon Valley for Peter Thiel, making millions, and then becoming a vulturous financier in his own right. The venture capital firm he started, Narya (named after some Tolkien bullshit in the Thiel house style), invests in companies that aim to monetize Catholic prayer, obstruct environmentally conscious equities trading, further militarize outer space, and consolidate agricultural production, squeezing out the country’s remaining small farmers. Finally, he got power, the real thing, scoring election to the Senate last year — triumphing first, with the critical assistance of Donald Trump Jr. and his father, over a Republican field of sweaty and misshapen golems, then over Democrat Tim Ryan, whom voters successfully recognized as a Democratic congressman and not, as Ryan argued, an Ohio-made weapons system deployed to the Taiwan Strait.
But none of it has been enough. Vance can’t be sated. During 2022’s campaign, to the horror of centrists and liberals who’d been gulled by his earlier Never Trump shtick, it became clear that there was effectively nothing he wouldn’t say or do — to win, certainly, but also for some purpose more libidinal and obscure. He, whose fame and fortune owe everything to the favorable intercession of Ivy League faculty, concluded a speech at the National Conservatism Conference with the pronouncement, “The professors are the enemy.” In a campaign ad, he asked, “Are you a racist? Do you hate Mexicans?” with a shitty little smirk on his face that invited the viewer to say no and yes at the same time. He argued that women should stay in violent relationships for the sake of providing stable homes for their children, and he fulminated against professional women even as his wife pursued her high-powered law career. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he fantasized about firing every civil servant and implementing a “de-Baathification” program against the American left, flirting openly with the idea of a coup d’état. (When delivering this argument, Vance gave reporter James Pogue “an imploring look, as though to suggest that he was more on the side of the kind of people who read Vanity Fair than most of you realize.”) Most infamously, Vance accused Joe Biden of deliberately relaxing enforcement at the country’s border as a strategy to kill off Republican voters via fentanyl trafficking. “If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl. . . . It does look intentional. It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish the people who didn’t vote for him.”
Vance is no novice to the “great replacement” theory, the idea that a cabal of elites is attempting to gradually eradicate white people and substitute a more obedient immigrant underclass. He delivers it under only the thinnest veneer of deniability. “Our people aren’t having enough children to replace themselves. That should bother us,” he admonished at the 2019 National Conservatism Conference, integrating a semi-tacit white nationalism with the right’s antiabortion program. When Ari M. Brostoff pointed out this connection at the time, the far-right and the center-right Never Trump types forced the Washington Post to issue a correction and delete Brostoff’s lines linking his pronatalism to white supremacy — one of many instances of the contemptible complaisance with which the political establishment received Vance during the long rightward shift he took over the course of the 2010s. Were we really to believe that years of enthusiastic fraternizing with neofascists like Thiel and Curtis Yarvin left him uninfluenced by the concerns that preoccupy those circles, such as the comparative IQ scores of various demographic groups or their relative propensity for crime? That Vance’s zest for high birth rates is unrelated to the eugenics increasingly prevalent on the tech industry’s far-right wing? That when he used the words “replace” and “our people,” he did so innocently — only to repeat the argument more forcefully on the campaign trail?
Vance wishes to foment what he sees as a class war — not between labor and capital, but between the white citizenry and the “elites” of the universities and the media, who pour poison into the ears of the country and corrode its virtue and integrity by stripping away your jobs, corrupting your kids, and sending drug-laden foreigners into your community. Within this false class politics, the suffering of working-class people is understood in conspiratorial rather than structural terms. There is no historical logic to class inequality and exploitation, only inexplicable and unique acts of cruelty that bear no useful comparison to anything that has happened to others. The historical present takes the fragmentary form of an unprocessed trauma: isolated jagged images, shards of fear and shame without pattern.
Trauma was the nominal subject of Vance’s gauzy 2016 memoir about bootstrapping his way out of an Ohio steel town, published before he famously became radicalized — reversing himself on Trump and auditioning for the position of new standard-bearer on the fascist right. And yet what links Vance the memoirist and Vance the politician is a continuous (if escalating) policy of nearly absolute nonconfrontation with what made him who he is — the nature of the trauma that he pantomimes exploring in his book. It’s quite the irony for a man elevated to fame as a soul-baring autobiographer. This also links him to Trump, the least introspective person who ever lived, and a politician with whom Vance shares a profound contempt toward the people for whom he imagines himself the spokesperson. Vance seems not to know that the feeling he conveys for the working-class world out of which he sprang is scorn. As his book communicates at great length, he remains a cipher to himself, and, like Trump, Vance’s transgressions clearly do some kind of libidinal work for him, expressing a need — a psychic void — that cannot be satisfied.
Normally, I would hesitate to psychologize to this degree. But Vance is himself the king of pop psychologists, and his whole self-presentation is built on the notions of willpower and self-discipline that are the heart of the pop-psych and self-help genres. There is no way to engage the problem he represents while refraining from entering this field. The mechanism of Vance’s interior contradiction is important to understand — not to argue the case against him, for which sufficient evidence was long ago accumulated, but to extract some meaning about the forces that animate and enable his ideology.
We are not without resources for such an approach. James Baldwin gets him almost dead to rights in The Fire Next Time, twenty-one years before Vance was born:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents — or, anyway, mothers — know about their children, and that they often regard white Americans that way. . . . One felt that if one had had that white man’s worldly advantages, one would never have become as bewildered and as joyless and as thoughtlessly cruel as he.
Here is Vance, all bewilderment, joylessness, and thoughtless cruelty caked over with some of the cheapest mythology on the market.